Sunday, August 4, 2013

Fruitvale Station

Grade: 50/C+

The release of Ryan Coogler’s directorial debut Fruitvale Station couldn’t have better timing. The film, about the unmotivated shooting of a young black man by the police on New Year’s Day of 2009, debuted at Sundance to high acclaim, but has been marked with greater relevance ever since the recent verdict on the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case. But timing isn’t everything- Fruitvale Station needs to hold up as a film as well as a social document. As it is, its good intentions outstrip its actual importance.

Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) is no saint, but he’s certainly trying to make up for past misdeeds. On New Year’s Eve, 2009, Grant makes plans for his mother’s (Octavia Spencer) birthday, plays a loving father to his young daughter (Ariana Neal), makes strides to improve his relationship with his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz), and even throws away the weed he was planning on selling. These are just a few of Grant’s acts of kindness over the course of the day. But when a fight breaks out on the BART train in Fruitvale Station, Oscar and his friends are taken aside by the police. They’re upset. They push the officers, one of whom pulls out his gun.

The short film- only 85 minutes- mostly follows Grant over the course of his last hours as he tries to go straight. Coogler shot Fruitvale Station primarily on 16mm film and handheld cameras, and the film has an appropriately stripped-down look that compliments the film’s day-in-the-life structure. Coogler has a real talent for coaxing natural performances from his actors as well- Spencer, Diaz, and 7-year-old Neal are all terrific in their supporting roles.

The real lifeblood of the film, however, is Jordan,  who fulfills the early promise he showed on The Wire and in last year’s Chronicle. Jordan plays Grant as a deeply sympathetic and warm person, a loving father, son, and boyfriend trying earnestly to atone for his sins. But while Jordan doesn’t judge, Grant, he doesn’t sand off his rough edges either. Grant quick to anger, he’s been irresponsible in the past, and the pain he’s caused his family isn’t so easily waved away. It’s a deeply nuanced performance that makes many of the script’s more contrived moments bearable.

But jeez, those contrivances. The film feels the need to constantly remind us that tragedy is a-comin’: Grant passes cop cars and gives them the once-over; a fight in prison foreshadows the fight on the train; Spencer suggests that her son take the train rather than drive (dun dun dun!); Grant’s daughter worries about the fireworks because they sound like gunshots (DUN DUN DUN). Coogler also feels the need to constantly remind us what a great guy Grant is, whether he’s helping a clueless white girl prepare a fish fry or hugging a fatally wounded dog in a moment of groan-inducing symbolism.

Coogler doesn’t trust the audience enough to care about the ongoing tragedy unless they’re constantly reminded about it and about what a super guy Grant was. For all we know, it’s true, but after a while it starts to feel too much like someone stacking dominoes in order to knock them over. By the time Coogler drags the final minutes out to include Grant’s family waiting, and waiting, and waiting for him to be OK, Coogler’s touch goes from overbearing to actively annoying.

A little manipulation could be forgiven, even justified, if Coogler had much on his mind. But Fruitvale Station doesn’t have any incisive questions about how this could have happened, or what makes Grant’s case either special or representative for cases of acts of violence by the police against young black men. The film’s only question seems to be “Isn’t this a shame?” Yes, but shouldn’t movies of the moment have something more specific to say?

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1 comment:

  1. Not sure you still check this blog (which is a great shame for me due to your clear talent) so I may be wasting my fingers, but I feel you've got it very wrong here - maybe you just got of bed on the wrong side the day you watched this.

    I feel your two accurate criticisms were about the over-extended hospital waiting scenes which were not so much agonising as cheapening, and the the scene where the daughter talks about the fireworks being like guns which was truly a misstep.

    I feel some of what you perceived as manipulations, were often very shrewd touches. The scene where the mother tells him to get the train was a little heavy-handed in the use of close-ups but at the same time it's such a horrifically ironic act in the grand scheme; the mother thinks her son has a high likelihood of getting hurt in a car accident but he ends up getting killed by the police instead. This really hit home as a white viewer how for urban African-Americans the threat of police violence is on the same plane as a traffic accident. Horrifying when you think about it.

    In contrast to you the dog scene for me was what really cemented the film as a minor classic precisely again for the deeper meanings I read into it. Firstly it didn't unfold like a contrived piece of dramatic manipulation, but as suggestive of the greater flow of life and nature outside the narrow focus of the drama, almost like a Kieslowski or Renoir film. The dog just happens to meet his death the same day as Oscar. The real beauty of the scene though is that there's more than a hint of envy in Oscar as he pets the dog - oh to live a carefree existence without suffocating ties and responsibilities. And then the dog dies and has no-one but Oscar, the nearest person and a virtual stranger to boot, to comfort it in it's death. This cements for Oscar why he should commit to his family in a purely logical, secular sense; who wants to die a lonely, meaningless death.

    Anyway just some of my thoughts on this fine film. It would be a wonderful surprise if one day you give me your thoughts on what I have written.